Global voices detail a history of gender bias in journalism

For the past two years, the OurBlook team has been busy collecting opinions from diverse industry experts on the future of journalism. We had an unsettling realization – if journalists were having a hard time keeping up with the changing media landscape, journalism departments were having an even harder time. This instigated our team to launch the University Partnership Program [UPP], which provides professors with free and customized Web, technology and research help to make classrooms more interactive, and help students gain new media skills.

One of the most successful UPP stories of transformation has been with a gender and mass media class at the University of Iowa, taught by Pamela Creedon, former director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at both the University of Iowa and Kent State University. With some digital assistance from the OurBlook team, Creedon has created an interactive classroom setting that exposes students to critical journalism principles and the Web and connects students with industry leaders.

Each semester, the class conducts an interview series with successful women in online journalism. These interviews are published on, under a CopyLeft license and in a “blook” format. Additionally, using available Web tools, Creedon hosts several virtual guests who provide the students with “real-time” industry insight. To complement the classroom learning, students also have access to a Future Journalist Resource Center, created specifically for UPP students by the OurBlook team. While the class project allows students to leave with a portfolio piece, it also provides them with an opportunity to give back to the journalism industry by increasing the amount of authoritative and journalism-focused information found on the Web.

This past semester, Creedon’s class decided to focus internationally (view project). The class reached out to bloggers, reporters, editors and professors in 17 countries, including Uganda, Kenya, Chile and Zimbabwe. The goal of the interview series was to understand the experience of women communicators throughout the world, and to gather opinions on the future of the news media. The following are some of the responses given in regards to the interviewees’ experience with gender bias(es). You can view the full interview series here.

On Gender Bias:

Fifteen of the students’ 21 interviews were communicators who contribute to, Women’s International Perspective, Inc., which reports news, world opinion and commentary through feature articles, byline portal, headlines and community blogs. Students reviewed the site and found women around the globe whom they would like to interview online.

“In the past year, it’s become strikingly apparent to all of us at The WIP (and the women that we work with) that to continue to call injustices or gaps in equality ‘women’s issues’ only serves to marginalize them. We should be calling them societal issues or human rights issues – this is the only way that we’ll ever see any real movement towards equality or a shift in the current power paradigm. To me, when American women are paid as little as 69¢ for every dollar earned by a man for commensurate work, that’s not a gender issue, that’s an issue with the way our society has placed value on the efforts of half the country’s population. And does that serve the country’s economy or GDP or the wellbeing of families? No. The paradigm of ‘us’ and ‘them’ needs to be laid to rest if ever we’re to see true shift, because what benefits women, benefits everyone.” Sarah McGowan, Founding Features and Photo Editor of The Women’s International Perspective in the United States.

“When I was doing my internship at the New Vision, I wanted to report on sports, but I never got a chance. I believed the editor thought ‘what can a woman do in sports.'” Halimah Abdullah Kisule, journalist in Uganda.

“In terms of countries like the US and the UK I consider men and women to play an equal role in the media already, and therefore in the years to come would like to see both working to high standards of respectable and reliable journalism… In developing countries and oppressive regimes I would love to see the number of female journalists continue to rise. Online journalism and blogging both have a huge scope for anonymity and so can (and should) be used to tell stories that would otherwise be kept hidden.” Natalie Hart, an English freelance journalist.

“In terms of promotions, gender bias [exists] when assigning reporters in the field, men always send women to weaker assignments, give them weaker positions. I’ve been senior reporter for over five years and yet those coming in are being promoted on the basis of gender.” Delphine Hampande, a senior reporter in Zambia.

“The main challenge to me is being a working woman, mother and a housewife. It is very hard to balance the three. Journalism involves fieldwork and that is really hard, yet I have to work hard to earn as a freelancer. Many men do not trust female journalists but I am happy my husband supports me even amidst all these.” Halimah Abdullah Kisule, a journalist from Uganda.

“I actually consider being a female journalist to be one of my advantages. I think it’s because people consider women to be less aggressive, less hardcore. I feel like that stereotype really helped me to hide my true aggression, my true, hardcore journalism. When I go out to report I always try to show a very feminine side but inside I know I’m a hardnosed journalist.” Xin Feng, journalist from China, currently residing in the US.

“Yes, I have been favored for being a woman.” Louise Belfrage, former WIP news editor and Swedish national currently working as a cultural diplomacy advisor in the Middle East.

“Over the years, I experienced sexual harassment from editors and other journalists, and one editor at a news organization in the 1970s refused to even let me leave a job application because he said they preferred to hire men. In the academy, I have had the same problems other females have had — we are still trapped mostly in the lower and middle faculty ranks. Men outnumber us in higher ranks and they make much more money than we do.” Carolyn Byerly, associate professor at Howard University in the United States.

“Absolutely, and I think all women have. Television reporting is dominated by women, but newsrooms are run by the old boys’ club. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive bullying. You’re ignored a lot. Women who are Type A’s fare better, but it’s tough when you’re a woman with brown skin. People expect you to behave a certain way because of your ethnicity, then act surprised or taken aback when you exhibit aggression or assertiveness. This industry encourages and applauds alpha-female behavior. It comes with the territory. So you’ve got to play the game — or sit on the bench and watch how it’s played.” Kelly Roche, TV reporter in Canada.

“Fortunately for me I haven’t experienced any kind of gender bias in my writing career. And the reason could be that I’m more into online journalism now.” Lesley Biswas, freelance journalist in India.

“Gender bias is a subtle and tricky phenomenon to pin down, but manifests in many different ways, both within the newsroom and in the way stories are covered. One interesting side of this is seen in radio voice work… I feel very lucky that I had an embarrassing incident early in my career that motivated me to master the art of voice work — a story I did was re-voiced by an older male reporter before it went to air. I pressed the editor to explain why, and he said that the story really needed a credible voice, and mine just didn’t carry enough weight. He suggested that I should try channeling Winston Churchill the next time I had to voice a serious piece — an odd suggestion, but I followed it, and it’s worked a treat ever since… Other girls have not been so lucky, unintentionally becoming stuck in a niche of puff pieces that suit their less resonant voices.” Amanda Strong, journalist at Radio New Zealand.

“Any female journalist who says she hasn’t faced gender biases is blind or deluding herself. In my first job they automatically put me, like all the other new female journalists, onto the Women’s Page, until they gave me a battery of IQ tests (which they did for every new employee). They called me in and said “do you know you are very, very smart? We can’t waste you on the Women’s Page, we will put you on politics.” I looked around at the men on the politics section and not one had to be smart to get there, not one would automatically be put into a soft men’s page. Cathy Strong, former newspaper, magazine, radio and television journalist in the US and New Zealand, a professor at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.

“In many parts of the world and not Africa only, gender biases are typical. In old form print journalism, some male journalists used to laugh at women feature writers…they said women wrote the soft stories and they, the men, reported hard news.” Philo Ikonya, Freelance Journalist in Kenya.

“When I first started in radio I was told that microphones didn’t like women’s voices!… Everyone in public media was and still is incredibly paranoid about appearing to be the slightest bit pro-feminist.” Frieda Werden, Co-Founder of WINGS: Women’s International News Gathering Service, USA, who now resides in Canada.

This article was co-authored by Abby Moon, an intern with OurBlook under the UPP program.

Hot Type: Gender and Media from on Vimeo.

Writing to the beat of their hearts

What’s it like to be an adolescent girl in 2008? You won’t find the answer in cheeseball family sitcoms written by thirty-somethings. Thankfully, the Millennial generation, incubated in the Internet, grew up playing with all the multimedia toys of the journalism trade. With their every move tracked around the clock on blogs, Facebook status updates, MySpace bulletins, emails, texts, and IMs, today’s teens make for natural citizen reporters of their own lives.

In Red: The Next Generation of American Writers – Teenage Girls – on What Fires Up Their Lives Today, a new collection of personal essays gathered by writer and editor Amy Goldwasser, a bevy of fearless young women have cut-and-pasted their thoughts right onto the page.

Their writing is guided by only one principle: No thought is too trivial or too strange to shout into the World Wide Web. You wish your identical twin sister would lose weight so she’d be as pretty as everyone says you are. You hate how TV stifles family conversations and then you hate that, as you’re writing this, you are not getting up to turn it off. You think of grinding as make-believe sex. No matter the subject, these girls write only to the beat of their hearts.

Many of the essays were dashed off in a matter of minutes. Some were pieced together from over 50 e-mails. All of them make for tasty, unprocessed reading. OJR chatted with Goldwasser over the holiday break. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: How did the book begin?

Goldwasser: I started the project because I’d been volunteering at the Lower East Side Girls Club, teaching writing — helping with college essays, plays, podcasts. I was really impressed with the originality of the writing. I work as a magazine consultant during the day, but I was finding the writing from the girls more exciting and varied than the professionals I was working with. We adults kind of know how to perform, and things become so formatted. The leads are fairly similar. The epiphanies always happened in the same places within the same word count. The girls, though, they write what they want to write instead of what someone’s telling them to write.

So I was trying to bring it into my work at the magazine — combining my day job and what I enjoyed volunteering with. I tried to get a girl writing column in various magazines and that didn’t work. And you can’t just reuse the writing three years later because they outgrow it: A 17-year-old will disown what she wrote when she was 14. And I was feeling terrible that I was wasting their work. In March 2006, I decided to take a sabbatical and do a call for essays to see once and for all if it would work.

I knew that to sell the idea, I needed the actual essays. So I sent out an e-mail to a few dozen friends and asked them to spread the word. I got 800 essays in six weeks. That’s the difference between the young writers and the professional writers — the girls write on the spot. They’re creating these bodies of personal written work daily. Blogging and social media have taken away the fear of putting something on paper.

OJR: How did you work with the writers?

Goldwasser: I’d tell them to write about whatever they want. I’d maybe offer a little direction, like tell me about a few things you’re into. The girls would respond, then I’d pick out one of the things and I’d get a completely new essay in an hour. They saw this kind of personal writing as an outgrowth of blogging. You know, I’m furious about the NEA report that said Americans are reading less and less. It fails to acknowledge new media. The girls in the book don’t consider themselves as writers. The Internet takes the preciousness of “writing” away. If you could see these essays annotated — some of these were cut and pasted from 50 e-mails. Especially with the girls, they’ll write, “He’s cool.” And I’ll say, tell me why. Tell me three cool things you’ve seen him do and hear him say. You do have to pry out the specifics. A positive that comes from all the Internet use is that nothing’s trivial. They have opinions on everything. There’s nothing weird about blogging about a movie they just saw or . It’s making more interesting writers — chroniclers of the everyday. Writers know that the key is to wake up and write every day. The girls already do that.

OJR: How do the girls feel about their most intimate secrets published?

Goldwasser: In a way, they weren’t concerned enough. It’s another thing the Internet has done — they’re so used to being published that I almost had to take many steps back and go to great lengths to make sure they know what they’re doing. Online, you’re using a username. This is different. You’re putting this into a book forever in the adult world. Their kids and their grandmas will read this. I think they handle it fine on the Internet, but when you transfer this to a book, things are a bit different. They put their full names on their essays. We had to change other distinguishing characteristics — for example, I couldn’t show off who was from the small towns.

OJR: Would it have been possible to do this book if it were teenage boys writing?

Goldwasser: That’s the big question right now. I started with girls because it was easier — it was an experiment from home. This is just the first book in a series. There’s going to be one about boys and then maybe by geographic locations — like a New York volume. One of the cool things is that every one of the 58 authors has a blog. The website is really at the heart of it. It’s a full-on social network like Facebook. Girls and boys can submit work — including photos or videos — constantly. We’ll connect them with professionals, an editor or music supervisor. The “best of” will be published in professionally edited books. Separating media is a very adult imposed thing. The girls — they don’t see the distinction. They just work in multimedia. We’re also looking into adapting Red for theatre.

I think the Internet is the best thing to happen to book publishing, and I’m quite upset about that Doris Lessing quote [“… the Internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc…”]. The younger generation does buy books and they buy books regularly. And they talk to each other. Everyone’s bemoaning the death of the book review. I feel like this generation — they’re all natural reviewers. They’ll start looking to each other more. It’s been so cool to watch it happen.

OJR: Do you think there is a lack of female voices in online journalism?

Goldwasser: The thing that really gets to me is the lack of female humor. There’s this idea that for women to be taken seriously they have to be serious.

OJR: Has the book been met with any negative reactions?

Goldwasser: People are uncomfortable with female sexuality. One girl, Eliza Appleton, wrote an essay on grinding [republished on Salon]. People got really upset with her. On the message boards they were saying where’s her mother, and things like that.

Another thing is adults really want to label the girls. We’ve gotten these false charges, like why are the girls from New York all white and liberal? That’s just unfounded. This book is as multi-anything as any collection. If a girl doesn’t write about race, people assume she’s white. It’s a weird reverse racism.

To rally an online community, start with controversy

After serving as agricultural editor and columnist at the New Zealand Herald, Philippa Stevenson now leads the Rural Network, a six-month-old online community for the country’s georgic population. Her blog “Dig ‘n’ Stir” is more than a commentary on New Zealand’s primary industries, science and the environment; it elicits debate and connects farmers with scientists, journalists and each other in hopes of building a political voice for the far-flung rural community.

OJR spoke with Stevenson on the phone earlier this week, and an edited transcript follows.

OJR: For those of us who are not very familiar with New Zealand – could you describe the country’s media landscape?

Stevenson: There are two major newspaper companies: APN News & Media, which owns our biggest paper, the New Zealand Herald, as well as half of the provincial newspapers; and Fairfax Media, which owns most of the rest. There are two major online websites: the New Zealand Herald site and Recently, Fairfax Media made a major purchase: It paid 750 million NZD for our version of eBay called Trade Me, a move to try to get the advertising that had been lost to Trade Me. I think Trade Me is the biggest site in New Zealand, in terms of online forums and the volume of trades.

OJR: How popular are blogs in New Zealand?

Stevenson: They are popular. One of the earliest blogs is called Public Address. It was started by Russell Brown, a leading blogger, and he has been struggling to make it pay. The blog’s been going for 10 or more years and his advertising’s rising so he’s hopeful.

Runway Reporter, a fashion site by a fashion reporter, wasn’t profitable when it was bought by ACP Media. Another online magazine, nzgirl, has been looked at by Fairfax Media. Print publishers are looking for opportunities to use successful online sites to bring them into the fold.

When Rural Network was started, my idea was that we’d try to be the rural equivalent of Public Address. There are a lot of political blogs out there, but not another one like Rural Network.

OJR: How did Rural Network get its start?

Stevenson: It’s an interesting genesis – Rural Network started in the reverse way from normal publications. It was started by an advertiser, Dow Agrochemicals (though the site now also has other sponsors). It was their idea was to launch the online platform, and they approached me to contribute editorials. The original idea was agricultural news, but that’s a difficult and expensive commodity. I suggested the blog. I thought that the blog could attract interest and it’s proved to be the case.

Dow is looking at interactivity and what it could bring them. None of the rural papers here have gotten into interactivity. They just put print stories up online. They go as far as putting up polls, but they’re not managed as blogs. Dow thought they’d set up their own site and get the whole rural community around them.

OJR: Was the site meant for readers to discuss Dow’s products?

Stevenson: No, it’s not, although people can and do ask questions about persistent weeds and how to deal with them. It’s more like if Dow created the community online, then they’d be associated with us – just like any other publication with advertisements around editorials. They also wanted a range of other sponsors. I think over time the site will draw more people to it — it’s still in the early days of proving itself. Already two other companies have come on board. It also comes down to when companies spend their budgets. Sponsoring the site might come into discussion in their next budget round.

It’s openly disclosed on the site that Dow is a sponsor. If a blog is going to be successful for a long time, I think it has to have a financial underpinning. But with somebody putting in money, there are issues of editorial independence. The thing I did right from the beginning was to set up some very simple editorial guidelines. I gave them to the sponsor and said, these are the conditions under which I will work for you. They were open to it. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to second guess them. I needed the freedom to do what I think would be successful.

OJR: How often do you blog?

Stevenson: Monday through Friday, at least once a day. Sometimes more. We don’t get a lot of weekend traffic but I do keep an eye on the comments over the weekend.

I spend about half my time now looking at the blog and doing things associated with it. The rest of the time I work as a freelance journalist or supporting other freelance journalists.

My freelance colleague Kim Griggs and I have a site called Freelance Market, and we organize an annual freelancer’s conference that’s New Zealand’s biggest gathering of journalists (around 200 people each year). We hate the idea of people working for nothing for publications. A lot of freelancers want to do that to get clips, but every time they work for nothing, they undercut someone else. We’d much rather they blog to build an online CV.

OJR: Has Rural Network caught on?

Stevenson: We’ve achieved in the first six months what we’d hoped to achieve in a year. People have to register on the site to take part, but many more people visit than are registered. A lot of rural people are on dial-up connections and we knew it’d be difficult for them. We’re trying to make sure that the site improves. We don’t think we have the ideal format yet.

With my experience, I can sometimes tell what works and what doesn’t. But there’s really no secret to getting traffic. It’s controversy. Blogging is the same as journalism: Get a good story, reveal it to people, and you’ll attract interest. Just in the last two weeks, we’ve had two angles on the topic of fertilizer companies. It’s a very hot topic. A company selling snake oil as fertilizer was sued under the Fair Trading Act and found guilty for misrepresenting their product. But there are people who believe fervently in this product. They had a lot to say in the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes. I blogged about the program and condemned it. The expert witness on the case is a soil scientist who also blogs on the site, so he was already attracting attention. He has very strong opinions. One particular week during this debate was the best week for us.

OJR: Do you interact with the readers?

Stevenson: I do interact on the comments. If I feel that responses are needed, then I go in and comment. First, I do it because it’s nice that people who comment aren’t ignored. If something’s erroneous to me then I also feel duty bound to add the proper side or my side. Also if I see a comment that’s been made about somebody, then I will make sure that he’s aware of it so he can comment as well. I find that one of the ways to get things known is not to expect people to find the blog all the time but to email them and alert them if a comment has been made that’s related to them.

I think about who would be interested, who might comment, and I send them a couple lines to the blog. I agree with Glen Justice, one of the people who commented on OJR [“Why journalists make ideal online community leaders“] that it is almost a matter of appealing to people one by one.

OJR: Which issues get the most reactions?

Stevenson: There’s a very strong agricultural science body in New Zealand, and we’ve had a lot of scientists debating things, especially as related to fertilizers. There’s quite a bit of debate on climate change between some of the local scientists on the IPCC. When I get comments, they’re usually very lengthy. Sometimes I say to the writers: Don’t just comment, send me a blog. There’s a good response to that as well.

OJR: What hasn’t worked on the site?

Stevenson: I’ve tried a lot of things to see what would catch people – things ranging from getting kids to blog to sports. I’ve asked people to give their feedback on crime or family issues. The softer things don’t seem to have worked. They might work over the long term when there are more people on board.

We don’t have a general news feed on the site – just the latest rural and agricultural stories. I don’t even feel that we have to tackle all the rural news issues. It’s enough to tackle a few of them. I am a journo-blogger, not just a blogger, so I look for my own stories to do, too. I look to mainstream media for stories to comment on, but I also look for my own stories and invite guest bloggers to come up. The blog’s targeted to the rural reader, but it’s not technical. I don’t want to narrow it down. I’m trying to have a broad appeal.

OJR: What is your vision for Rural Network?

Stevenson: I’d like to see a large discussion going. What I’ve always said to the readership is that this is a 24/7 forum. You don’t have to wait until you go to town or to a once-a-year conference. People on farms by definition are isolated. They don’t get to town all the time. Rural Network is an ideal forum for them – a chance to express themselves and have a conversation any time they want. It’s a real breakthrough for rural people.

I’ve been an agricultural journalist now for 30 years. I’m well aware that there isn’t enough discussion on the important issues. The discussions that take place are hijacked by the most powerful or the most verbal or the ones with money. I watched people going to conferences boiling over with frustration because they haven’t been able express their views. There are huge pressures on farmers. This site is a safety valve. We can discuss important issues and not be dominated by the most powerful.

We had a lively debate about methane, New Zealand’s biggest contribution to greenhouse gases. Farmers have to trade carbon emissions because of the methane coming out of their cows and sheep, but we say that our farming is cleaner and greener. About 80% of our farm production is exported. Because animals are kept outside all year, we don’t have industrialized farms. There’s huge amounts of interest in climate change. People are debating: Is it happening? What’s the effect on agriculture? Will the north of New Zealand go from subtropical to tropical?

Dairy is New Zealand’s biggest industry, accounting for 20% of our export earnings. Most of the production comes from one company. Every year they have one annual meeting. So you only have one opportunity a year to stand up and express all the issues you may be concerned about. You’ve got to worry not just about your livelihood but the livelihood of the industry. Wool is another major industry, but as an economic unit, it’s on its last legs. There are huge issues there that people need to debate.

Because I’ve been around long enough, I know so many people. Hopefully I can get to the person right at the top and say, you need to respond to this. This is an important issue. I think given enough time, this is what the goal of the blog would be. I guess I have big ambitions for it.